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What Would You Do If Your Child Was A Killer? Defending Jacob by William Landay

Melissa's Murder Mystery Monday

Would you know if your child was a murderer? 

This savvy prosecutor likes to believe she would recognize the truth:

But, when the truth involves your own child, how clouded does your judgment become?

William Landay's Defending Jacob has been compared to Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent.

I found Landay's writing just as good as Turow's and Defending Jacob every bit as suspenseful as Presumed Innocent, right down to the mind blowing twist at the end.

************Warning: Plot Spoilers*********

Defending Jacob is a courtroom drama that is structured on two paralleling plot lines. The first is told from, Andy Barber's point of view, one year after the murder. The second is testimony from a grand jury hearing and from Jacob's trial. Readers do not discover the target of the grand jury hearing until the last few pages of the book.  Landay does an excellent job hiding, in plain sight, the true purpose and target of the grand jury hearing. I certainly believed, Andy was the target of this grand jury investigation. I believed he was being investigated for obstruction of justice or some other crime that involved him hiding and destroying evidence that would have implicated his son in the murder. I was in for quite a surprise.

There are two suspenseful plot lines running through this mystery/suspense//legal thriller. The first is a common did he do it question. Did the district attorney's son, Jacob kill his high school classmate? The second is more emotional. Does the father truly believe his son is innocent or deep down does he know he is guilty of murder, hence the reason dad destroys evidence implicating his only child? Can his mother believe he is truly innocent- even if the jury finds him not guilty?

We all know that there is a difference between not guilty and innocent. Just because an accused is found not guilty by a jury, because the state failed to prove the case of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, does not mean the accused is truly innocent of the crime.  Defendant's are freed on technicalities all the time. Is that what happens in Defending Jacob? 

Defending Jacob, by William Landay, opens amid Andy Barber's testimony at a grand jury hearing. The author does not reveal the target of the grand jury hearing until the end of the book. We soon figure out that Andy has done something wrong, or at least he is suspected of doing something wrong. From the questions lobbed at him by Neal Logiudice, the man Barber once mentored, we sense that Andy Barber is being accused of some sort of prosecutorial misconduct. Logiudice, claims Andy should have removed himself from the investigation as soon as he learned the identity of the victim, Ben Rifkin. Rifkin, was a classmate of Jacob Barber, Andy's 14 year old son.  I can see how many would view this as a conflict of interest. I have worked as a prosecutor in both a large District Attorney's office and in a small rural parish and I have to disagree with the emphasis placed on this detail.

In a perfect world we would never allow police or prosecutors to investigate cases that involved people they know professionally or personally, but in small town, where everyone pretty much knows everyone, it is virtually impossible for an investigative officer of the prosecutor to recuse himself from every case. The setting of this book is a small, quaint village in Newton Mass., a place where everybody knows everyone.  If the victim turned out to be the girlfriend or best friend of Andy's son, then he would have a conflict of interest. 


Andy Barber is a prosecutor in the upscale, wealthy, Newton, Mass. His world falls apart when his 14-year-old son is accused of murdering his classmate, Ben Rifkin. It doesn't help when the investigation reveals that Rifkin was a bully and Andy's son, Jacob, was his primary target. Andy is called to the scene and initially suspects a pedophile, who lives nearby. Evidence leads to Jacob, who admits finding the body and offers fear, as his excuse for failing to tell anyone and reporting to school that same day as if nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Andy is removed from the case and one of the issues of the book becomes whether or not Andy committed prosecutorial misconduct by remaining on the case after learning the identity of the victim.  Students inform the police that Jacob has a knife (the victim was killed with a knife). The evidence against Jacob is not compelling, but could be enough for the overly zealous prosecutor, Neal Logiudice, who worked under Andy, to sustain a conviction.

As the damaging evidence grows- pointing to Jacob's guilt, Andy's parental instincts rally to protect his son. The story is as much about defending Jacob in the courtroom as it is about defending his son's innocence and youth. Andy has to believe in Jacob's innocence. He cannot fathom a life that includes Jacob's guilt. Andy must also struggle with his own demons. He's concealed the truth about his own father and paternal lineage of violence from his wife. It is gut wrenching for the reader to watch Jacob's parents try to maintain some sense of normalcy. Andy refuses to acknowledge that the damaging evidence against his son points to his guilt. Andy's biggest fear is the jury returning a verdict of guilty. His wife, on the other hand, struggles more with her fear of what a not guilty verdict will mean. How can they allow their son to roam free- free to kill again?

Defending Jacob offers readers a plethora of social issues and themes:

1. Classic guilt vs. innocence
2. How far will a parent go to protect their child?
3. Just how well do parents know their children?
4. Nature vs. Nurture
5. The Killing Gene: Can a person inherit a propensity toward violence?
6. Social Media and how involved it has become in our lives and in the judicial system
7. Bullying in the school system
8. Prosecuting children as adults for violent criminal acts
9. The isolation a family faces when they are no longer considered normal
10. What happens to the family dynamic when the basic belief that our children are good is destroyed?
11. Could you destroy your child if you were certain he was a sociopath and would continue to destroy innocent victims?

Defending Jacob is not your ordinary courtroom drama or mystery/suspense. It is the emotional story of family dynamics and how the murder trial of their son affects the family.

I read this book in early January, 2012. My goal is to read 50 books before the end of the year. While I am very close to obtaining my goal, I realized that I haven't reviewed many of the books I have read. Since this was the first book I read in 2012, it seemed fitting that it be the first I review. I have reviewed a few others, but I am working toward reviewing each book I read this year. I read this book over one weekend. I could not put it down. I have learned that people either really loved Defending Jacob, or they were not impressed at all.

This is my favorite genre and I read a lot of mystery/suspense, legal thrillers and courtroom dramas and Defending Jacob was one of the best books I have read in years. I could not wait for my husband to finish the book (and others I knew were reading it or planned to read it) because I was itching to discuss the issue that was eating away at me.

I am a parent so naturally this book left me questioning what I would do if this tragedy fell upon my own family. I suppose that my career as a prosecutor and then a defense attorney made the possibility much more realistic. I do not see how any parent can read this book and not walk away feeling sick and needing to ask the question and letting it sit in their soul as they ponder.

What would you do if your child killed someone?

Read more about Defending Jacob and author, William Landay at his website.


Melissa Sugar said...

wow! sounds like a book to definitely add to my list! Thanks for all the work you put into describing it.

Melissa Sugar said...

Fascinating, Melissa.I can't imagine the emotional and financial stress that would be on a family.
I think I'd want to stand by my child, but I'd also want to know everything I could about whether or not he was guilt, or could be found guilty, then I would make it my life's work to make sure if he was innocent, to help him. I seriously would do anything for my kids, but I draw the line at helping a criminal, no matter who they are. Heartless, huh? I believe in justice, and mercy, but sometimes, mercy cannot replace justice, ya know? Great post!

Melissa Sugar said...

The most difficult situation ever that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. I read Lionel Shriver's 'We need to talk about Kevin' and it was a dark, distressing experience.

Melissa Sugar said...

That would be a tough place to find oneself in.

Melissa Sugar said...

oh my. What a conundrum. And that tagline certainly caught my attention. REminds me of the movie with Macaulay Culkin & Elijah Wood - The Good Son.

Melissa Sugar said...

This is such a difficult situation. I cannot even begin to imagine what to do.

Melissa Sugar said...

Hi Melissa! This sure is an interesting read. By the way, I love your book review. Detailed and just proves the great writer in you :)

Melissa Sugar said...

Wow, your review makes me want to read this now!! I just posted on
Anita's blog the other day that the one thing that terrifies me the most
about the possibility of having kids is having teenagers in the future,
LOL!! That's so true about the online personalities thing... I'm glad
that wasn't around when I was a teen.

Maycee (Tony Lama Boot)

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